MANCHESTER, NH–Despite his third-grade reading level and IQ of 71, developmentally disabled Burger King employee Andy Ehrman is the only competent member of the 22-person Frontage Road staff.
"I will help you with that!" the 28-year-old Ehrman told a drive-thru customer Monday, hustling to put the customer's order in a bag after cashier Daniel Genz dropped it on a tray and walked away. "There you go! Thank you! Have a nice day!"
As Ehrman waved goodbye to the customer, Genz leaned against the shake machine, making a cell-phone call to his girlfriend.
"Don't forget to shut the drawer, Daniel, or someone can take all the money," said Ehrman, pushing the register closed and straightening the stack of trays under the counter. "Then we'd all get in trouble!"
In addition to his usual lunch-rush duties–making sure the dining area, condiment island, and restrooms are clean and stocked–Ehrman spent 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday voluntarily sweeping and mopping the floor in the prep area, helping an elderly customer find her purse, and throwing salt on the icy walk outside the restaurant.
During the same two-hour stretch, 20-year-old Jenna Sanders, Ehrman's direct supervisor, incorrectly prepared three orders, spilled a jug of oil in the kitchen, and had a 25-minute conversation about the band Slipknot with coworker Debi Price.
"[Sanders] double-charged me for a BK Big Fish Value Meal," customer Terry Unger said. "Then she got my order completely wrong. I was about to storm out of there and never come back again when this retarded kid, all smiles, comes up and asks if I need help. Sixty seconds later, he hands me the correct order and change, and apologizes for the trouble. Finally, someone who understands how to treat a customer."
Unger added that in addition to having the only clean uniform in the store, Ehrman seemed to be the sole employee with basic interpersonal skills.
"Maybe they teach it in the special-ed classes or something, but he's the only one who actually speaks in sentences as opposed to grunts," Unger said. "And when I asked for extra ketchup packets, he handed them to me and said, 'Here you go,' instead of rolling his eyes."
Ehrman is also willing to perform tasks beyond those in his job description, offering to help coworkers stock shelves or run the dishwasher when they fall behind. Most nights, Ehrman even volunteers to clean the grease traps.
"I don't mind," Ehrman said. "I'm helping!"
Willis Barnett, a delivery driver who makes twice-weekly dropoffs at the Frontage Road store, is among the many people impressed with Ehrman.
"I love it when I make a delivery and they've got that tard working in the back," Barnett said. "He always knows exactly where everything goes. Everyone else just says, 'Uh, I don't know–toss it on the floor or something.'"
Among his many other qualities, Ehrman boasts a near-encyclopedic knowledge of Burger King protocol and safety regulations.
"[Assistant manager] Kerri [Sheckley] said the dishwasher uses the green stuff, and [manager] Bob [Hundhausen] said it uses the purple stuff," Ehrman said. "But then I saw on the TV show [training video Cleaning The Burger King Way] that you use both, 'cause one is the stuff that kills germs and one is soap. So I use both."
Ehrman also makes an effort to bring potential safety hazards to coworkers' attention.
"Hey, Randy, we can't put cardboard boxes or anything paper under there," Ehrman told Randy Leyner, 26, upon seeing him put a stack of french-fry cartons under the fryer. "It could start a fire!" After being ignored by Leyner, Ehrman dragged the cartons to the rear storage closet himself.
Unlike other members of the Frontage Road team, Ehrman never shows up late or asks to leave early. In fact, when Ehrman works the morning shift, he can usually be seen waiting in the front lobby by 5:30 a.m., 45 minutes before the morning manager arrives to unlock the door.
But despite working substantially harder than any of his coworkers, Ehrman bears no resentment toward them.
"I used to work at the hospital in the mailroom, but it was boring and people were mean to me," said Ehrman, plugging his nose and shaking his head to signify that the job "stank." "I like to work at Burger King better. There's always lots and lots to do. And I get a free Whopper to take home!"
Miriam Donnelly, the social worker who placed Ehrman at Burger King, is extremely pleased with his success.
"Andy has trouble with basic addition and spelling his name, but he fits right in at Burger King," Donnelly said. "The work seems almost tailor-made for someone with special needs."
Donnelly added that everything at Burger King, from the touch-pad registers to the step-by-step diagrams for folding the apple-pie sleeves, is designed to help low-functioning individuals succeed.
"Andy may go a little slower than some of the other workers, but he does one thing at a time, focuses on it, and, in the end, gets it right," Donnelly said. "Actually, now that I think about it, he's not really any slower."